The shadow of assassination, even as it haunted America, seemed a perennial threat in postwar Europe. The ’60s and ’70s saw France, Italy, West Germany and Spain wracked by leftist terror groups and rightist paramilitary organizations, with government repression and even false flags adding to the violence. American filmmakers might speculate about sinister plots against the Kennedys; European directors drew on real-world conspiracies. After all, Grigoris Lambrakis was murdered by Greece’s far right; West Germany’s Red Army Faction and Italy’s Red Brigades both targeted government officials for kidnapping or assassination. What still seemed improbable in one country was demonstrably happening elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, European cinema grew thick with political murders. Some drew on recent events: Gillo Pontecorvo’s Ogro (1979) dramatized a Basque separatist plot against Luis Carrero Blanco, Francisco Franco’s deputy whose death enabled Spain’s transition to democracy. Others dipped into history: Florestano Vancini’s The Assassination of Matteotti (1973) depicted the murder of Benito Mussolini’s chief political rival. Or Joseph Losey’s The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), a multinational production marred by bizarre flourishes: a giallo-esque whisper-wail musical score, a graphically-violent bullfight, Alain Delon’s assassin staring bug-eyed at Stalin’s reflection in a lake, Richard Burton’s Trotsky shrieking demonically with an ice ax protruding from his scalp.
Frederick Forsyth spent the late ’60s covering Nigeria’s civil war for the BBC. In Biafra he encountered foreign mercenaries fighting on either side of the conflict, hired killers whose detached professionalism both terrified and fascinated him. “I heard some pretty miserable life stories, out of which came how to get a false passport, how to get a gun, how to break a neck,” Forsyth recalled. He worked sometimes as an agent and courier for MI6, using his journalism career as cover. In 1970 Forsyth returned to London with no job, no money or immediate prospects – but plenty of raw material for novels.
For his first novel, Forsyth recalled his work for Reuters in France in 1962. He witnessed firsthand the attempts of the OAS (Organisation armee secrete) to assassinate Charles de Gaulle over his withdrawal of French troops from Algeria. That long, bitterly divisive conflict led to terrorism, torture, mass murders, the exile or massacre of European settlers (pieds noirs) in Algeria, political instability and lingering violence in both countries, and a low-level civil war in France. The OAS, a conglomerate of ex-soldiers, pieds noirs and French fascists, conducted a three-way war against both Algeria and the French government, manifested most dramatically in various conspiracies against de Gaulle.
De Gaulle outlasted the OAS’s myriad plots; after the student protests of May 1968 and a failed referendum, De Gaulle relinquished power in 1969, dying peacefully the following year. Wondering how he’d have killed De Gaulle, the world’s best-defended president, Forsyth decided that a professional contract killer would have stood a better chance than political fanatics. He may also have known that French government used hired killers to eliminate Algerian terrorists and hostile arms merchants during the war. Forsyth wrote a novel in 35 days, little anticipating its subsequent success. Soon The Day of the Jackal became an international bestseller.
In 1971, British producer Sir John Woolf presented Forsyth’s manuscript to Fred Zinnemann. The legendary director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity, The Nun’s Story and A Man for All Seasons was reeling after MGM cancelled his long-cherished project, Man’s Fate. Zinnemann resented “lawyers and accountants…[replacing] showmen as the heads of the studios.” Considering Jackal both commercially viable and artistically challenging, Zinnemann signed on.
Jackal proved an expensive undertaking. Shooting spanned across France, England, Italy and Austria. Co-producer Julien Delrode secured Zinnemann extraordinary access to French government sites, including the Interior Ministry. Zinnemann filmed the climactic Liberation Day scenes at a Bastille Day parade, featuring de Gaulle impersonator Adrien Cayla-Legrand (so convincing that extras confused him for the real thing). The result thrilled critics and audiences alike: Roger Ebert called Jackal “a beautifully executed example of film making… put together like a fine watch.”
From the opening frames, announced by Georges Delerue’s pounding score, Jackal rivets our attention. “August 1962 was a stormy time for France,” a narrator intones, introducing the OAS ambush of de Gaulle at Petit Clamart. A spy watches De Gaulle leave the Elysee Palace; miles away, Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry’s (Jean Sorel) hit squad awaits. Zinnemann tensely cuts between hunters and hunted, until de Gaulle arrives, machine guns blaze and de Gaulle narrowly escapes death. This scene is a mini-masterpiece, yet it’s merely Jackal‘s curtain-raiser.
Afterwards, OAS Colonel Rodin (Eric Porter) hires the Jackal (Edward Fox), an Englishman with a resume of high-profile murders (Rafael Trujillo and Patrice Lumumba among them). We follow the Jackal’s preparations: buying false passports and a custom-made rifle, he prowls across Europe, researching de Gaulle’s habits, history and personality, while preparing disguises, equipment and hideouts across Europe. He’s not perfect, making mistakes (such as a careless car accident) that jeopardize his mission but retaining enough distance to outrace the authorities. And he silences anyone threatening to expose him, from a sleazy forger (Roland Pickup) to an unassuming gay man (Anton Rogers) who recognizes him on the television. Nothing matters but the job.
Zinnemann cast Edward Fox after seeing Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971). Fox recalled that his reading of the line “Nothing is ever a lady’s fault” impressed Zinnemann: “Any actor who can make that line believable has got my ticket.” Fox marvelously underplays the Jackal, his jet-set swagger, affected accent and icy blue eyes masking a ruthless killer. He’s a sociopath turning emotions on like a tap: charming one moment, remorseless the next, blending into a crowd while remaining conspicuously deadly. Fox graces Jackal with a unique presence that the studio’s proposed A-list stars (Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, Robert Shaw) couldn’t have delivered.
Forsyth claimed “I was very surprised when readers said they loved [the Jackal]. He was the ruddy killer.” Indeed, the Jackal’s hardly likable: besides contracting with terrorists, he murders several innocent people for dubious reasons. Perhaps viewers admire his determination, considering him an underdog working against an entire government. Perhaps because the authorities of Gaullist France often seem no better. In one sequence, French intelligence operatives kidnap OAS courier Wolenski (played, ironically, by Jean Martin, the torture-endorsing Colonel of The Battle of Algiers) in Italy and torture him to death for a nugget of ambiguous information. Who’s the hero?
That would be Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), Paris’s Deputy Police Commissioner. Stocky and soft-spoken, he’s introduced fussing over pigeons and arrives at a Cabinet meeting in a soiled suit. Indeed, de Gaulle’s Interior Minister (Alan Badel) treats Lebel with scarcely-concealed contempt even while offering him remarkable authority for his investigation. Telling assistant Caron (Derek Jacobi) that “after de Gaulle we’re the two most powerful people in France,” he’s totally overwhelmed. With few leads, no evidence and enforced secrecy, Lebel must scour France for an elusive killer.
Thankfully, Lebel’s up to the task. Michael Lonsdale becomes an amiable protagonist, an Everyman-turned-Gallic Sherlock Holmes. Both hardworking and intuitive, he draws closer through thin leads and hunches. Lonsdale makes Lebel increasingly assertive against class strictures, climaxing when he entraps an official (Barrie Ingham) who’s been (inadvertently) leaking secrets to an OAS mole. “How did you know whose phone to tap?” the Minister asks. “I didn’t, so I tapped all of them,” Lebel unflappably responds.
The Day of the Jackal ultimately becomes an epic police procedural. Jackal‘s recurring image is bone-tired detectives working into the night, contrasted with the Jackal’s homicidal tourism. The paper trail overwhelms: Lebel sorts through thousands of border registries and hotel cards for relevant morsels, allowing the Jackal time to slip through the dragnet. In London, Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas (Tony Britton) follows a vague tip towards the Jackal’s identity. With his detectives investigating passport records, he’s told 8,041 people registered in the past month. “Bloody holiday season!” he snaps.
Jackal‘s meticulous realism proved so impressive that it inspired many real-life criminals. At least two assassins, Yigal Amir (who killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995) and Vladimir Arutyunian (who threw a grenade at George W. Bush during his 2005 visit to Georgia) were avid readers of the novel. Notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal was nicknamed after the protagonist, based on an erroneous report that police discovered the book among his belongings. On a more banal level, the Jackal’s method of passport forgery (stealing the identity of someone deceased as a child) remained commonplace for decades, dubbed “Jackal fraud” by British law enforcement.
In lesser hands, this narrative (the Jackal’s preparations, Lebel’s manhunt) could be dense or unmanageable. (Indeed, the movie dials back the novel’s political exposition, perhaps because the events were fresh enough that viewers didn’t need reminding.) But screenwriter Kenneth Ross breaks exposition into bite-sized chunks, making the sheer volume of information digestible. Long scenes play without dialogue, like the Jackal’s test-firing his rifle into a melon (culminating in a cathartic, seed-splattering explosion) or changing into a new disguise after a murder, without losing tension. Even seemingly superfluous moments (a motorcycle courier delivering a message to the Elysee) fit snugly into Jackal‘s deliberately-crafted mosaic.
Zinnemann and photographer Jean Tournier shoot with clinical detachment, blending locations from Paris streets and Riviera hotels to dingy meetinghouses. He frequently shows the Jackal at work in long-take medium shots, allowing viewers to take in his sumptuous locations as the Jackal anonymously plots. Delerue’s sparse score gives way to diegetic soundscape: music’s provided by radios, street performers and marching bands. One murder scene’s backgrounded with a TV showing of John Huston’s Moulin Rouge! The climax plays with La Marseillaise juxtaposed against Lebel’s efforts to foil the assassination.
Zinnemann sprinkles Jackal with dozens of vignettes, played by a game collection of British and French character actors. The Jackal visits a cheeky gunsmith (Cyril Cusack) who interrogates the Jackal about his weapon as if measuring him for a suit: “Will the gentleman be moving?” The Jackal woos Madame De Montpellier (Delphine Seyrig of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), a bored aristocrat thrilled by his attentions… until she realizes his identity. Seyrig’s sensitive turn is matched by Olga Georges-Picot, who makes Denise, the OAS informant, who’s less evil than pitiable. Watching a colleague burn her deceased fiancee’s photograph, she accepts her mission (seducing Barry Ingham’s pompous Minister) with tearful resignation.
Finally, the payoff. Since this isn’t Inglourious Basterds, we know the Jackal will fail: the question is how. Having eluded Lebel, the Jackal stands poised to shoot de Gaulle before thousands of soldiers, police and onlookers. Disguised as a disabled veteran, he sneaks through a security cordon, immobilizes as an inquisitive landlady and sets up a sniper’s nest overlooking the ceremony. History, ultimately, hinges on a stupid mistake that renders months of preparation moot. Contrasting Lebel’s frantic searching, the Jackal patiently stalking the President and the ceremony obliviously unfolding, Zinnemann and editor Ralph Kemplen provide an incomparable finale.
The Day of the Jackal is simultaneously simple yet complex: straightforward in approach, yet crammed with detail. Its minor inconsistencies (period-inappropriate cars and haircuts, English actors playing Frenchmen without accents, the Jackal killing one victim seemingly by touch) matter little. There’s little action and few twists, nor the overweening paranoia of many other ’70s thrillers (or the bombastic action of its accursed, Bruce Willis-starring remake) – just an engrossing, well-told story. Zinnemann compared Jackal to “a giant puzzle, all coldly rational, without any kind of emotion.” And it’s fascinating watching the pieces fall into place.
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